MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – Nurses demanding that UW Health recognize their efforts to organize and join a union are threatening a three-day walkout next month. On Wednesday, they voted overwhelmingly to stage a strike three weeks from now if the health system’s board and administrators refuse to begin negotiations for a collective agreement.
In a statement, organizers said “hundreds of nurses” backed the plan, with supporters claiming 99% of the vote. However, when asked how many of the health system’s 2,600 nurses would be eligible to join the union — 1,500 of whom signed union cards — a spokesman for the union effort declined to provide a more specific number. UW Health reports there are 3,400 nurses overall.
The strike will last from the morning of Tuesday, September 13, until Friday, September 16, the organizers explained. They plan to provide ten days’ notice to the hospital if they expect to go through with the strike, so administrators can prepare. Her statement did not detail whether any or all nurses scheduled to work those days would leave or if only off-duty nurses would join the assembly lines.
Nurses joining the union effort argue they have faced understaffing, burnout and burnout for years, issues only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tami Burns, who used to be a nurse at UW Health, says she’s had PTSD, and she’s not alone.
“I have cared for Covid patients throughout the pandemic and my colleagues and I have seen more patient deaths than ever before in our careers,” she said. “Compounding to this brutal experience has been the almost total lack of support and resources from the UW Health administration.”
Referring to her time in the military, Burns explained that she feels this fight for a union is an extension of her service. She argued that by organizing, nurses can help build their ranks at UW Health and ensure that staff members don’t burn out, results that would allow them to improve patient care.
UW Health called the vote “disappointing” and accused nurses of taking a step that would harm patients, adding that “it will be uncomfortable for our patients and our staff, but we will get through it and never forget the mission our joint effort to meet the needs of our patients.”
The health system repeated its claim, which has been disputed by organizers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, that its hands are tied as far as recognizing a union because state law prohibits it. If organizers want their union recognized, UW Health claims, they will have to settle the case in a courtroom.
Another nurse who has also been at the hospital for five years, Colin Gillis, echoed Burns’ sentiment. An agreement would allow them to be involved in patient care decisions, she explained, claiming that it is the “executives in the boardroom” who make those calls now.
Turnover and staff shortages force us to make difficult decisions: Do I stay with a patient who is medically unstable, or do I step away to administer medication to someone in severe pain? she continued. “I am no longer willing to allow UW Health to put me in those impossible situations.”
The nurses previously were SEIU members, organizers noted, only to see their membership effectively revoked in 2014 when UW Health administrators would not consider a collective bargaining agreement, citing Act 10 restrictions. established by the controversial 2011 law that limited the collective bargaining powers of public employees in Wisconsin.
Organizers claim that after the previous agreement expired, the hospital cut staff, as well as health insurance and continuing education benefits. UW Health disputed their claims, arguing that its compensation packages are larger than most other hospitals in the area and that its turnover rate is lower than the national average. The new hires, he continued, also pushed vacancy rates below the national average.
In addition to its attorneys, UW Health said the Wisconsin Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Bureau have supported its conclusion. In June, Attorney General Josh Kaul revealed that UW Health could enter into voluntary negotiations with the union. After rejecting Kaul’s insistence on voluntary bargaining, the health system turned to another section of the attorney general’s statement, where he said the union could still go through traditional channels. UW Health’s statement predicted that this would end up in court where they would get the “final answer.”
SEIU says the nurses’ strike, if it happens, would be one of the largest by a group seeking representation in recent history.
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